U.S. medics to soon start staffing Ebola hospital in Liberia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some 65 U.S. medical personnel will arrive in the next week or so to staff a U.S.-military built hospital in Liberia that will treat healthcare workers who contract Ebola, a centerpiece of U.S. efforts to fight the epidemic, a top general said Thursday.

Major General Darryl Williams, who is overseeing the U.S. military response in West Africa, renewed assurances that there were no plans for American troops to treat Liberians infected by Ebola.

But a team of 65 doctors and nurses from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, will staff a 25-bed hospital built by the military.

“They will actually be involved in the care and feeding of health care workers who have been inflicted with the Ebola virus,” Williams said in a teleconference from Liberia.

The risk to healthcare workers has come into sharp focus in the United States after two nurses in Texas became infected while tending to a Liberian national who died from the hemorrhagic fever on Oct. 8.

A total of 4,493 people have died from the world’s worst Ebola outbreak on record, and nearly half of all deaths have happened in Liberia, making it a focus of American efforts to halt the epidemic at its source.

None of the 500 troops on the ground now in Liberia and Senegal have shown symptoms of Ebola, Williams said.

He also expressed confidence in guidelines provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I would not say there’s no risk. But there is risk that can be tampered down if you take the appropriate discipline and use the protocols,” he said.

The job of the up to 4,000 American forces expected to be deployed to West Africa focuses on building infrastructure, like the 25-bed field hospital for sick healthcare workers and up to 17 Ebola treatment units across the country at the center of the world’s worst Ebola outbreak on record.

A small number of U.S. forces are also testing blood samples in three mobile laboratories, and another four laboratories are on their way, Williams said.

“That’s probably the closest it comes (for the U.S. military) to the Ebola virus chain,” Williams said, referring to the mobile laboratories.

Williams’ comments came the same day that President Barack Obama authorized calling up reserve forces for the Ebola fight.

The vast majority of engineers, transport units, civil affairs personnel, military police and medical units are in the military reserves and the National Guard. [ID:nL2N0SB37H]

As the U.S. military grapples with questions about future deployments, it is also readying for a potential need for medical evacuation of personnel, Williams said.

A Pentagon memo seen by Reuters detailed plans to automatically evacuate U.S. military forces if they were deemed to be “high risk” because someone had direct contact with blood or body fluids of an Ebola patient.

Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Lisa Shumaker